What It Was

3 Mins read

Written by George Pelecanos — On a rainy afternoon, Nick Stefanos and Derek Strange are having drinks at Leo’s, two friends content enough to just sit down, barely talking. In the Rain by The Dramatics comes on the jukebox, igniting reminiscences about 1972, the year of the song’s release. For Stefanos, it was the summer that Watergate broke. But for Strange, it was an entirely different time. It was the summer that Red went off. “Some called him Red Fury,” explains Strange, “on account of his light skin and the tint of his hair. Fury was the car his woman drove.”
“We got all afternoon,” says Stefanos.
“Then let me tell it,” replies Strange. And so he does.

Strange’s narration starts with the murder of Bobby Odum and with the theft of a ring. Funkadelic’s I Wanna Know If It’s Good To You played on the victim’s turntable, and parked outside was a Plymouth Fury, the GT Sport two-door with a V8 inside. The plates read Coco, as in brothel owner Coco Watkins, Robert Lee ‘Red Fury’ Jones’s woman. More blood is soon spilled as scores are settled.

Strange was a private detective at the time – four years after the events of Hard Revolution where he appeared as a rookie cop. In this story he’s hired by Maybelline Walker. She was Odum’s friend and wants Strange to recover her stolen ring. Meanwhile, detective Frank Vaughn, his former partner in the Washington DC police, is trying to catch Red Fury and put an end to his murderous rampage. Vaughn and Strange team up once again, although unofficially this time.

Throughout the story, the seemingly unimportant ring changes hands several times before ending up in its rightful owner’s possession. The ring motif is a brilliant device, connecting different plotlines, serving as a thread between the characters, some of whom are following its trail.

What It Was is carried by Pelecanos’s usual themes of poverty, greed, drugs, crime, love, friendship, honour, and so on. However, as he’s proven in the past, he finds new ways of showing us the real world and he vividly captures it on the page. Here, for example, is the sad and violent story of Red Fury Jones, a man who started life on the wrong foot, who grew up with no hope for his future, a disinterest brought on by his difficult childhood in poverty and without a father. His philosophy became: “Take what you want, take no man’s shit. No police can intimidate you, no sentence will enslave you, no cell can contain your mind.”

Thus Jones lives his life like a fired bullet, well aware that the trajectory is his freedom but that final impact is inevitable. A man who has no hope has nothing to lose and becomes dangerous. Pelecanos renders Jones so well that we understand the character’s motivation and attitude, making us wish that someone – or something — could save him, and those in his deadly path.

This crime story takes you for a ride and the choice of cars is endless, as is the musical selection throughout the book. It’s a multisensory experience that works on many levels. The writing is as laid-back as any good storytelling should be, and the characters are so real that I feel I’ve seen them on a movie screen instead of on a page. I heard the clicks and bangs of the guns, the rumbling engines and the screeches of tyres. I was wrapped in the atmosphere brought on by the soundtrack of the book. The songs are still planted in my head as I write this review, especially the soulful, slightly raspy Just a Little Overcome playing over the echo of Red Jones’s shotgun blast, while his victim’s blood reddens the floor.

It’s not a secret that the best advice for would-be writers is to read a lot of books. My advice to them is to read a lot of books by George Pelecanos – for the characters, for their motivations as well as for the specific traits that define and differentiate them. The dialogue never feels forced – each individual has a natural speech pattern. Read it for the comic timing, and for the escalating sense of urgency in the drama as well. When you read a Pelecanos book, you learn about history, politics, music, clothes, food – everything. In short, you are being entertained while you learn about life.

£0.99 (Until 28 Feb)

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

If you want to know more about the author visit my blog House of Crime and Mystery to read an interview with him.

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